Rob Renner, executive director of the Water Research Foundation, recently talked to Brown and Caldwell Senior Vice President Cindy Paulson about the finite amount of water in the world and the unlimited number of challenges and opportunities that exist for managing this vital resource. In the coming weeks, BC Water News will be interviewing leaders from each of the research organizations to gain their perspectives on Integrated Water Management.
OCT. 7, 2014

You've been a leader in the water sector for many years. How did you get your start? What advice would you offer for someone starting in the water sector today?
Growing up, I was trying to decide if I should I go into medicine or into engineering. I chose engineering. I was drawn to the whole water cycle issue; that was my interest. I joined the U.S. Army because of Vietnam and spent a couple of years with the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, which is like the EPA for the Army, evaluating water and wastewater plants in the western half of the United States. Then I went into consulting and I consulted for nearly 20 years before getting into the not-for-profit sector.

If I had one piece of advice I’d say this: The world is about relationships. The key is to get good at speaking and writing and understanding how people work, because I think that’s very critical to solving the world’s water problems.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for WRF?
I think the challenges and opportunities are tied together. One of the big changes is managing the water cycle. People say you should stay in your swim lane. Well there aren’t any swim lanes, we’ve got this big ocean out there of water and it doesn’t matter if it’s stormwater, wastewater, groundwater, surface water — with today’s environment water’s water. And it’s managing that change into that One Water paradigm, that One Water cycle.

In your nearly 10 years with the WRF, what are a few ways you have seen the organization evolve?
One of the things we did was we changed our name and updated our brand so that we could move into integrated water management. The name that we had limited us to the United States and also was somewhat limiting as to the scope of what our subscribers were asking us to do.

Another big change was to create an emerging opportunities program. One of the things we heard is that our subscribers wanted us to be able to respond with research more quickly, so this program allows us to get approval by the executive committee in a matter of weeks. As an example, if a spill happens in West Virginia and there are some unresolved questions that people want quick answers to, we can get a project on the street in probably four to six weeks.

We've also developed a Facilitated Research Services program that enables WRF utility subscribers to tap into our expertise in research management and site-specific procurement processes. Research supported by this program is fully funded by a specific utility or group of utilities that has unique research needs. Participants benefit directly from WRF's independent management of research management and communications expertise, and by the association to WRF's long-standing, scientific credibility. This approach has worked out very well.

What is your vision for the Water Research Foundation’s next chapter?
The vision for the Foundation is to be the preeminent provider of water research solutions. We are looking to respond to our subscribers’ needs and one of those needs is to further embrace the concept of One Water. Another need is to deepen our collaboration with other research foundations so that we make sure that the research that’s being done is most efficient at meeting the growing and diversifying needs of our utilities, and to avoid the duplication of research.

What are the greatest challenges on the horizon for U.S. water suppliers over the next 30 years?
There are a number of them but I think one of the biggest challenges will be obtaining adequate water supplies from all water sources for utilities. Because they have to plan over such a long term, the important thing is to make sure they have their portfolios in place. And it’s not going to just hit the water-short areas, it’ll hit the Southeast, potentially the Northeast, and so the challenge is going to be to make sure that people have adequate water supplies especially given the changes we’re seeing from the ever evolving climate.

The other thing that I see is, at a time when water use is declining, the needs for water infrastructure investment and advanced water treatment — stormwater, wastewater, whatever — are increasing. So we’re asking people to pay more for — what appears to be — less. How do we do that? This hinges on successfully explaining the value of water to the consumers.

Water in lakes, rivers and the ground might be free but if you’re going to deliver water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in a safe and sufficient manner it takes extensive resources both capital and human. And then removing waste from the home in an environmentally safe manner and being able to recover important nutrients like phosphorus, that all takes resources. The challenge is to get customers to understand that when you pay your water bill, your sewer bill, your stormwater bill, you’re actually getting tremendous value. It’s really an exciting time to be in water. It’s always been so essential to life, but it got to the point where it was being taken for granted, and becoming kind of boring, but now it’s not. It’s an amazing time.

Through your international water engagements, what do you see as some of the greatest differences in how water is viewed here in the U.S. vs. elsewhere?
I chair the board of the Global Water Research Coalition, which is made up of a dozen research foundations similar to WRF from around the world, so I get to interact a lot with people from other developed countries and itís really fascinating. In areas like the European Union, Australia and Singapore, water is much more important on a policy level to their governments than it is here in the United States. Those countries realize that great societies need great water systems to protect public health, their citizens, and also their nationís commerce.

WRF recently established Integrated Water Management (IWM) as a new focus area. What motivated this decision? What do you see as the greatest opportunities in IWM and water supply diversification?
Our perspective is that water from all sources must be managed holistically and cooperatively to meet social, environmental and economic needs.

There’s such a strong movement to protect the environment, I’m concerned that people are starting to forget that water is the most essential thing to protect public health. But there are huge opportunities because the pristine or unaltered water sources are just becoming more and more scarce. So the only way to meet the world’s water needs now is to turn to a diversified water portfolio, and recognize that water, despite where it comes from, is critical to meet our needs. Even water-rich areas are starting to realize we need to protect this resource.

It’s very very important that people tune into the fact that we have a finite amount of water in the world and it has to be used to the best benefit of people as possible. It’s unlimited in terms of the issues and opportunities that exist.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to the implementation of IWM on a regional level?
I think institutional barriers are a big issue. I think a more integrated approach is needed at all levels. Political and institutional boundaries don’t follow watershed boundaries so we need to have additional collaboration between management agencies to effectively manage water within a watershed.

Another issue is competition between water users, the scarcer it becomes the more competition you have. Related to that is that we have something like 100 years of water law on the books that’s based on a different scenario than we’re facing right now. And that affects how water’s used. The Colorado River is probably a good example in terms of how are we going to resolve a compact that was established at a time when there were historic high flows. As a result, it’s over-allocated.

What sort of relationships or agreements seem to set the groundwork for IWM to succeed?
We’ve done several research projects on integrated water management and found it’s a combination of several factors that’s the key to implementing it. You’ve got to have public support, the stakeholder engagement, you have to analyze multiple alternatives and you have to consider the long-term horizon when you’re looking at this. And then if you use integrated water management as a continuous process, using adaptive management and re-evaluating these efforts on a regular basis, you can make real progress. Most importantly, you’ve got to get everyone around the table to get it solved.

What opportunities are there for WRF subscribers to get involved?
We’re driven by volunteers, we have over 1,000 active volunteers and we wouldn’t be who we are without each other. Volunteers can get involved in the board, with some of our technical advisory groups, and every research project we do has a project advisory committee.

What we find is that the more our subscribers get involved, the more benefits they garner. Volunteers are rubbing shoulders with the experts across a wide variety of areas; and they're networking with peers from around the world. Volunteers and subscribers have easy access to experts and peers that they can call in New York City or New Orleans or Los Angeles and Seattle, so that’s just tremendous.

Looking back, what are your greatest accomplishments or what are you most proud of during your tenure as the leader of the WRF?
Well anything that’s done at the Foundation doesn’t have to do with me, we have an outstanding board, I’ve been blessed to work with some incredible leaders, we have an amazing staff, and everyone working together is what gets us where we need to be.

But I think one of the great things we’ve done is to work very closely with our subscribers to create value so they don’t have to feel like they are a subscriber just out of loyalty to the water community, but because they get the reliable and relevant research information that they can use.

I think implementing a communications program, to get the research that we have out quickly and to get it in a format that’s easy to use, has been huge. Our broad research agenda results in projects that results in reliable information and relevant resources and tools to support day-to-day work and short- and long-term planning efforts.

We have new knowledge portals on the website that provide synthesis of important areas so that if you have a question about research done on utility finance, for example, you can go there and get the broad overview of 50 reports, and then if you want detail you can delve down into the reports. We transitioned from being a report factory to more of a knowledge center.

What are you reading these days?
I read a lot and I’ll give you the nonfictions, because the fictions are what I call the junk books that I read on airplanes. The best book that I just finished and would highly recommend is called “The Boys in the Boat,” about the 1936 Olympic gold medal winning team. I love that book, it was awesome. The most sobering book I’ve read recently was “The Worst Hard Time,” which is about the Dust Bowl and it really relates to the lack of water. Man that was sobering.


Name: Rob Renner

Title: Executive Director of the Water Research Foundation

Background: Renner was previously the executive director of the International Society of Automation and served as deputy executive director of AWWA.

Renner has more than 20 years of experience as a consultant, optimizing water treatment plant performance. He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in sanitary engineering from South Dakota State University.

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